Is there ever a circumstance, especially in a sales-starved
economic climate like this one, when you should fire a
client? Read on for some surprising answers …
By Michele Bell
dealing with difficult clients
irst, let’s state the obvious: Letting a client go is never extreme negative word-of-mouth advertising. You never know
an optimal situation for a business to be in. Even with who this ‘client’ is connected to – their father-in-law might be
the most ill-mannered, misbehaving, time-wasting your biggest client.” So a word of caution: tread lightly with
client, desperate times call for desperate (or toler- this one.
ant) measures, right? Wrong, say sales experts. While there’s The challenge in this economic environment is that clients
no doubt that everyone these days is scrounging for sales and are more demanding. “But great service doesn’t cost more, it
craving new clients, there is some behavior that categorically actually costs less,” Murcott says. “Those companies that find
deserves a time-out. ways to delight the clients they want will win market share over
their competition – both now, and as we come out of this try-
Varying Degrees of Difficult ing economic period. The key is to carefully define the clients
Mary Murcott, president of Performance Transformations Inc., and markets you really want to own – and service the heck out
a sales and customer service consultancy firm that’s worked of them.”
with American Express, DHL and Ryder, maintains there are
three types of problematic customers – all of whom have their Set Boundaries
own special set of issues. “The customer is always right” is a phrase that’s sold millions
The first type buys, but demands a lot. “They give you a lot of books and been the topic of many a motivational speech.
of feedback, which while difficult to hear, makes your com- But ask anyone who deals with customers on a regular basis and
pany better,” Murcott says. “Perhaps you lose money dealing they’ll tell you it’s wrong, says Debra Schmidt, a professional
with this individual client, but they almost always have a good speaker, corporate trainer and author of Building Customer Loy-
point.” alty from the Inside Out.
If you can fix or enhance a process, product or person that “Customers are not always right – they make mistakes,” says
caused their dissatisfaction, then you’ve done so for all your cli- Schmidt, who’s worked with the Kohler Co., SYSCO, Time War-
ents, Murcott says. “In doing so, you’ve improved your quality. ner Cable and Lucent Technologies. “Some customers are dis-
And wherever there are quality problems, most likely there are honest, some customers are chronic complainers and some are
cost problems as well.”
The second type of difficult client is one that buys, but is rude
to staff or asks for the truly impossible. “Those I either route Remedies for Clients Who Are “Pills”
to a less-expensive self-service option, such as Web ordering or every business has them: the clients who are your
an interactive voice response system, or chose to fire them as a handfuls, your crosses to bear, the banes of your
client,” Murcott says. existence. yet, they spend just enough to make you
“We never allow berating or staff abuse, no matter what the tolerate their nonsense. here, Jeffrey hansler, a sales
economic conditions are,” says Eric Johnson, executive vice consultant with the Oxford company, offers some
situational resolutions and suggests changing your
president of Minneapolis-based supplier Halls & Co./ID Line.
behavior in the following areas:
“Nickel and diming, that’s an ongoing thing no matter what the
economic climate. A supplier just has to know when to say no.” ■ Your perspective and/or attitude: “if the situation
Two years ago, Sprint fired 1,000 of its clients who were call- stays the same, you have to start viewing it differently,”
ing them 40 times each per month. The telecom company sent
them a letter indicating that they didn’t believe the client was a ■ Your method of operation: By not altering this, and
fit for a relationship with their company, and released the client quickly, “you’ll have to cut costs somewhere else to pay
from the early-termination penalty. In other words, Murcott for working with that client.”
points out, Sprint sent its expensive-to-serve and “poor fit” ■ Your contact with the client: “Put someone else on the
clients to the competition. Better they deal with troublesome account if possible or reduce the contact you have with
clients than you. them,” he advises.
The third type of challenging client is one that never buys ■ Your communication skills: “greater skill means more
from you, yet steals your ideas. “The only way to deal with this tools for dealing with – and avoiding – situations like
customer is to block their access to your Web site and phone these,” he says.
number,” Murcott advises. “The downside of this action is
downright nasty. But no matter how unpleasant a customer is, need to end the conversation. Before you hang up, encour-
it’s not your job to prove they’re wrong or teach them a lesson.” age him to call back when he is calmer so you can help him to
Johnson has noticed an increased trend among his distribu- get the problem resolved.
tor clients of nitpicking and finding fault with an order in an • Put emotional distance between you and your customer.
attempt to get the cost reduced. “It’s a constant battle, with Your customer’s anger is not about you or your employee.
suppliers generally giving in when there’s any doubt,” he says. It’s her problem, so choose not to take it personally. Even nice
“For example, when a paper proof is approved by the client and customers can get angry when they feel a company has mis-
the order is done accordingly, but there was an error, who takes treated them. Do the best you can to let your customer know
the blame? Generally, in order to satisfy the customer, the sup- you care.
plier will redo the order at no charge. Fair? I’m not sure.” • Don’t try to teach your customer a lesson. It really
The good news is that about 97% of customers are decent, doesn’t matter whose mistake it was. You’re not in your job to
reasonable people who just want to be treated with respect and serve as a judge and jury every time a customer messes up. You
feel appreciated for their business. “They’ll sometimes become don’t need to point out the error of their ways. Simply review
upset because a mistake was made, but will generally forgive the problem and work toward resolving it.
sprint fired 1,000 clients who were calling the company 40
times each per month, sending its expensive-to-serve and
“poor fit” clients to the competition.
the error and continue to do busi- • Treat even your angry customers
ness with you if the problem is with respect. You don’t have to agree
resolved,” Schmidt maintains. with your customer’s opinion. Most
So what to do about the 2%-3% people just want to know that some-
of customers who can ruin your day one is willing to listen and actually
with a single phone call? First, cares about their concerns. They
you need to remember that it’s may be having a horrible day.
difficult to keep all custom- Maybe they’ve been through a
ers happy all of the time. Here service nightmare with your com-
are Schmidt’s tips for dealing pany and they’re simply fed up
with customers who treat you by the time you get the call.
or your staff poorly, use abusive Perhaps they’re experienc-
language or exhibit consistently ing a personal tragedy and
demeaning behavior: just taking it out on you. Put
• Let your angry customer vent yourself in your customer’s
for a while. When he comes up for shoes and ask yourself, “If
air, offer to help. If your customer this were me, what would I
uses abusive or vulgar language, want?”
simply let him know that you’d be •When all else fails, give
happy to help but you’re unable up. Some customers will simply
to do so under those conditions. not give you the opportunity to fix
Advise your customer that you’ll their problems. If the same cus-
dealing with difficult clients
“By removing the difficult clients from your roster,
you’ll find greater time for gaining new, ‘grateful’ clients –
a critical step to success in hard times.”
Jeff hansler, the OxfOrd cOMPany
tomer has a track record of abusive language and angry calls, removing the difficult clients from your roster, you will find
it may be better to say goodbye to the business. This message greater time for gaining new, ‘grateful’ clients – a critical step
needs to be communicated to the customer by the company’s to success in hard times.”So what to do in the event that you’ve
management. let your guard down and you do have a difficult client? Hansler
• Learn to let go. Don’t carry the baggage of one angry cus- preaches communication. “The problem is it’s hard to talk with
tomer over to your other customers. They deserve to be treated them, either because you can’t be heard or they aren’t listening,”
with warmth and kindness. If a customer has upset you, get up he says. “Without communication, you’re forced to work under
and walk away for a few minutes. Get a drink of water, take the present conditions or terminate the agreement, which takes
some deep breaths and allow yourself to get neutral before you you right back to the initial issue. It’s a catch-22 situation: Your
take that next call. communication and attitude got you into the situation in the
Regardless of a customer’s personality or communication first place, and unless those have changed, you’re in the same
style, they’re still a customer,” Schmidt points out. “They may situation with the same client.”
not always be right, but they’re the reason you’re in business. Johnson believes that in this economy, it all has to do with
Most problems are the result of a lack of communication. current stresses and who is under the greater stress point in the
Focus on helping the customer, not proving them wrong – even specific transaction. “On the flip side, are distributors less tol-
when they are. A kind word, a listening ear and respect will erant of supplier terms and/or errors?” he asks. “Are they search-
teach them a far greater lesson than pointing out the error of ing for a wider variety of suppliers in case one should go under?
their ways.” We’re all watching our own backs right now, and ‘preservation’
is the key word. Preservation of cash, customers, employees ...
Attitude Adjustment all of it.”
While being an entrepreneur – which many supplier business Michele Bell is editor of Supplier Global Resource.
owners in this industry are – often goes hand-in-hand with
being fond of control, shall we say, it would behoove you to
remember this mantra: There are things you can control and Resources
things you cannot control. You cannot control another’s behav- to get more information, insights or advice from any of
ior – only your reaction to it. our experts, you can reach them through the following
A difficult client means someone needs an attitude adjust- venues:
ment – and that person is you, says sales training expert and ■ Jeffrey Hansler, consultant, The Oxford Company:
author Jeffrey Hansler, a sales consultant with The Oxford Ph: (714) 960-7461; e-mail; email@example.com;
Company, whose clients include AT&T, Lexus, General Mills web site: www.oxfordco.com
and Disney. “Your clients are difficult because you’ve entered
■ Mary Murcott, president, Performance
an unhealthy relationship where you feel you’re stuck in that
situation,” he says. “If you have a ‘difficult client,’ it most often Ph: (972) 998-6734; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web
means you conceded to an agreement you didn’t want to in site: www.performancetransformations.biz
order to get the business.”Hansler says the best way to handle
difficult clients is not “hire” them in the first place. “Difficult ■ Debra Schmidt, owner, Loyalty Leader Inc.:
clients eat up time, money and energy,” he notes. “In the end, Ph: (414) 964-3872; e-mail: email@example.com;
you and the client lose. Should you have a higher tolerance for web site: www.LoyaltyLeader.com
difficult client behavior? No. In fact, hard as it may seem, by